Does Hong Kong need electoral system reform?

Ker Sin Tze says, in an analysis of the electoral systems of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, the SAR may find lessons in Taiwan's adaptation of the proportional representation system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 3:21am

The problems confronting Hong Kong today are complicated. The working class demand better welfare, in particular housing and working conditions. The upper class argue that the British colonial laissez-faire policy should be kept. Property developers and owners do not like the government to build more public housing, fearing it will exert downward pressure on property prices and inevitably erode their interests.

Hong Kong has also been a safe haven for China's political dissidents, home even today to those with different political ideologies. Many are fearful of Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's governance. Western China-watchers and liberal advocates champion the cause of full democracy. Young people, mostly students, are earnest, vocal protesters in marches. Many newspapers attack the government with sensational reports. The scene seems chaotic, especially from far away.

Although the commercial and social infrastructure left behind by the British was intact and working, the political set-up has been revamped to create a unique structure. Under the new system, the chief executive is elected by an Election Committee comprising 1,200 members. Cabinet ministers are appointed by the chief executive, not elected. They have to seek support and approval from the 70-member Legislative Council, made up of 35 members from functional constituencies and 35 from geographical constituencies.

A distinct feature is that there is no ruling party. The chief executive is not affiliated to any political party. A former chief executive once said that " when I was giving a speech in the chamber, looking down from the rostrum, I could hardly find a single member who would support me, irrespective of whether they are pro- or anti- establishment". Political parties need votes to survive and so adopt populist gestures. Small parties have to be vocal to attract attention. This has made it difficult for the government to implement its policies. There is some truth in attributing the political chaos to the electoral system.

Following two direct elections in 1991 and 1995, in which pro-democracy politicians won most of the seats contested, Beijing replaced the legislature with a Provisional Legislative Council after the handover. Perhaps fearing that the pro-democracy politicians might capture most of the seats again, the council voted to change the first-past-the-post electoral system to the proportional-representation system in September 1997.

Hong Kong's system of "proportional representation with the largest remainder method" clearly favours parties and independent candidates with fewer votes. In the 2008 Legco election, a controversial League of Social Democrats candidate won a seat with only 8.1 per cent of the total votes cast in his constituency. Eight candidates won their seats with less than 8 per cent of votes in the 2012 election.

This system encourages vocal minorities, contributing to the chaotic political scene. But it may not be entirely correct to blame the proportional representation system for the political chaos, as Taiwan, with a modified formula, differs in its experience.

There are essentially three segments of Taiwanese elections. First, local government polls, including those for mayor, city council and county government/council; second, Legislative Council polls; and third, the presidential election.

Its legislature comprises 113 members. This includes 73 directly elected from geographical constituencies and six aboriginals from the reserved aboriginal constituencies, with the remaining 34 elected by proportional representation. These 34 seats are allocated according to the percentage of votes won by the parties, subject to a 5 per cent minimum. Half of the 34 seats are reserved for women. Each party prepares a candidate list, with those at the top of the list having better chances of winning than those at the bottom.

The presidential election is a direct election by eligible voters across Taiwan and offshore islands.

Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan has adopted a mixed electoral system. About two-thirds of the 113 seats (79) are directly elected by geographical constituencies, and about one-third (34) are elected from party lists under the proportional representation system. With the 5 per cent minimum requirement, small parties and independent candidates have been effectively excluded from sharing in the 34 non- constituency seats, while women have greater participation in the legislature.

Singapore inherited the first-past-the-post electoral system from the British. There has been no compelling need to change it, except for minor modifications. In 1990, the government introduced the nominated member of Parliament scheme to bring in non-partisan voices to add to parliamentary debate. In 2010, Parliament revamped the inactive non-constituency MP scheme, which gives a limited number of seats to the top losing candidates. This was to ensure a minimum number of opposition candidates in a Parliament dominated by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

There are currently 87 legislators elected from geographical constituencies, three non-constituency MPs and nine nominated MPs, making a total of 99.

With the emergence of younger voters and social media, there is more desire for participation in the decision-forming process. The 2011 general election and the two recent by-elections - both lost by the PAP - have revealed a gap in expectations and communication between the voters and the government.

One way to alleviate the problem is to modify the non-constituency MP scheme, or add on to it so it has features like those in Taiwan. For instance, 10 more seats could be added for non-constituency MPs, open to all parties that contest and divided according to their vote share. If the PAP's total share of the votes was 60 per cent, it would be allocated six seats and the major opposition parties would have the remaining four, to be split in proportion to their share of votes.

These new non-constituency MPs would have the same responsibilities and rights as all other MPs, except they would not attend to constituency work. The PAP non-constituency MPs would also be eligible to be appointed as ministers. This would reduce the difficulty of enticing bright talent to serve in Parliament and the government.

To be sure, electoral reform is a serious business and requires much discussion. Hong Kong and Taiwan have both made changes to their systems. Hong Kong may wish to review its system, in particular the "largest remainder method", so as to minimise the skewed distribution of seats among parties. Perhaps a careful study of their experiences will lead Singapore to embark on some changes in the future.

Ker Sin Tze was a PAP member of Parliament from 1991 to 2001. He served as Singapore's trade representative in Taipei from 2002 to 2007, and as consul-general in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2012. The original article was first published in The Straits Times on March 23